I nearly came in contact with the first ever portfolio of William Shakespeare’s plays, and history should be glad that I didn’t.
The University of Iowa had brought the folio to campus through a tour commemorating the 400th year anniversary of the death of a literary god Shakespeare, and within the month or so that the portfolio was on campus, I was beginning to feel Iowa City’s dedication as a “City of Literature” was only a charming title that masked the intense cult of bibliophiles walking the campus. I had been pressured told time and time again by several professors to attend the exhibit, and that this collection of his work was a rare opportunity not unlike an eclipse. How could I not go? The university was graciously keeping the stars aligned so that students like me could experience “The Wonder of Will”. (The tour touted its showcasing of 1 of 235 extant copies of the portfolio). Be that as it may, I put off seeing the 8th Wonder for a while because a collection of Shakespeare’s work didn’t quite seem like a once in a lifetime opportunity.
On some unfateful day, however, I found myself walking into the exhibit alone before class. The room itself was somewhat spacious with tidbits of additional information scattered throughout the exhibit and along the walls. From the grammar-school books Shakespeare used as a child to a Bible in which a priest had emphatically marked out “inappropriate” verses—there were definitely points of interest. But for sometime at the edge of the room, I orbited around the focal point of the tour twice before I even dared to approach it. After I made my final revolution and met the case in the center of the room, I peered at the propped book inside. I was finally gazing on the object of historical obsession, and in that moment—
I had the uncanny desire to crumple its simple pages in my hands.
Interestingly enough, I don’t feel as though I have anything pressing to say about the New Year or the old one for that matter. However, I feel it’s expected there should be quite the long list of triumphs and failures to analyze and distill into some lyrically hopeful post about taking 2017 by storm. In other words, I should be writing a “2016 in Review” essay detailing the year that’s both blinked and schlepped by. Yet here I am instead thinking about the fact that in some alternate universe I’ve been arrested for defiling a historically integral part of the English language because I wanted to know what it felt like.
With its lightly yellowed pages bordering an orangish hue (a sign of its age no doubt) and its crisply mint appearance, the portfolio truly demanded the obsession my professors had so readily succumb to. I could clearly make out Hamlet’s iconic monologue in the lines “To be or not to be” which were written in some beautifully archaic serif font of the time. It was just so striking, and while I gazed at it, it seemed to continue to grow both bigger and more influential than all of what I currently hope my life will achieve. I could only imagine what that significance feels like to hands that are so soft and clammy because they’ve only ran across the plastic of a keyboard and nothing more.
I wanted to touch it.
Since that moment, every now and again I think of that spike of primal desire—mostly when I look at my hands. They reflect countless lapses into anxiety more so than any trying days of hard work and grit, and since I’m no farmer or wood carver, I’m left wondering what painstaking work is supposed to look like on the hands of someone who aspires to work with words. Seeing how smooth and unblemished they are makes it all the more easy to believe that I’ll only be turning twenty this year. Some part of me feels they should look different—more aged and accomplished. I guess I’ve had it somewhere in my mind, tucked away and seeping, that by now I would have became this thing I’ve always imagined—a more supreme Austin that apparently doesn’t translate that well into the reality of the present of what’s now become 2017.
After this past year, I can’t even tell if that Austin is more of a goal or a rigid fantasy with origins dating back to high school. Simply put, I’m unsure if whether or not this apparition I have of myself can ever be achieved or if it will only loom over me and scoff at the soft skin of my palm…
I had the privilege of meeting many inspirational figures this semester who helped me better understand myself and my aspirations. For one thing, I heard the poet Robyn Schiff, whom I’ve never heard of before this fall, read from her poetry collection Revolver, and I was awestruck and inspired like never before just from listening to a poem. Her work represented so much of what I never knew poetry could be to the point that I view my own work entirely different, and it’s that very moment of pure revelation that defined much of this semester. I’ve gone from simply wanting to write to fully intending on being fluent in Japanese, a professor of both English and Japanese literature, an avid reader, and being wholly dedicated to my craft. Above all, however, I intend on writing truth.
Because of this, it’s now my firm belief that I am a habitual hoarder mover of goal posts. If I’m ever near a goal, I’m likely to reset it farther away to a point where I can barely make out its silhouette, and thanks to this past semester, the amount of distant goal posts I own has dramatically increased. Now, I can’t help but feel unaccomplished in the far off faces of my goals. I can’t help but bemoan the fact that I am so young—that my hands still have this awful novelty to them.
So here I am in 2017—wondering about what Shakespeare’s hands looked like.
What was the exact moment when his fingers captured a thrashing, resounding truth and locked it in language?
Are mine too weak to perform that kind of fingerwork?
When will I know if my hands have told the truth?
I don’t know.
But if there’s anything I’ve come to realize about myself at the cusp of my twentieth birthday, it’s that I have a very quiet yet intense determination about myself, and looking at Shakespeare’s portfolio betrayed the existence of that drive—that longing to work words…
Who knows though? Maybe my work won’t ever manifest itself in calluses or bit nails on these hands. Maybe, after a couple of decades of typing, it will instead be reflected by an arthritis diagnosis…